The original draft of City on the Edge of Forever by Harlan Ellison is one of the more famous unproduced screenplays in television or indeed film history. The final episode itself was justly recognized as one of the best, if not the best episode of the entire original series of Star Trek. It has warmth, character, action, suspense, a compelling dilemma, moments of true poetry and one of William Shatner’s best performances as Kirk. In fact, as a rule of thumb, I think you can always spot the good Shatner performances based on the quality of the script. When the script is weak, or he doesn’t have a strong director, Shatner goes over into hamminess as we all know. But if you give the man a good script and then take the reigns with him and make him get his hamminess out on early takes (this was a trick Nicholas Meyer learned in the later films), Shatner can really be a quite effective actor. He shows it in this episode, underplaying (seriously, he does!) and gracefully allowing his leading lady, Joan Collins, to steal scenes as Edith Keeler, probably the most fascinating “woman of the week” even in Trek. It’s the novelistic, refined writing that’s at the core of what makes the episode successful, and won it a well-deserved Hugo Award.
Many, if not most Trek fans leave it right there. It’s a great episode. But Ellison’s original draft, which did emerge in the 1970s in print, is a step beyond what would have been possible or even conceivable for Trek at the time. Ellison, as he admits himself in the afterward to issue #1 of this handsome new comic adaptation, wrote the episode having never really seen Star Trek. He was working from a early production “bible”, a document issued by Gene Roddenberry (and his collaborators such as DC Fontana, Bob Justman and Gene Coon) to guide potential scripts. Thus, there are many things in Ellison’s original draft that don’t square with the show Star Trek was in its first season. For example, Yeoman Rand plays a prominent role in the first draft and is absent from the filmed draft. And the main character who motivates the action is not Dr. McCoy, accidentally overdosing while helping Sulu, but another character named Beckwith, a full-on drug addict. It also featured elaborate sets and settings that were probably beyond the budget and technology of a TV show in the mid-sixites, such as postulating a huge city with ancient men speaking out of crystals, something only barely possible in the Krypton sequences from the original Superman: The Movie from 1978, a decade down the road and with millions to spend. So, there were practical and creative reasons why Ellison’s draft, like all TV scripts, was subject to re-write by the producers. Ellison made (and still makes) a big stink out of this, but it’s just how the business works. The producer or show-runner of a TV show has to keep the “big picture” in mind, and make sure every episode, no matter who wrote it or directed it, feels like the same show. Ellison’s first draft teleplay, though elegant and beautiful, simply wouldn’t have worked as a season one episode of Star Trek. But Ellison didn’t see it that way, famously confronting Roddenberry angrily at the Hugo Awards (Roddenberry brushed him off, saying, “He’s young…”).
The great thing is that now, almost 50 years later, Ellison has collaborated with Scott and David Tipton and helped to create a new comic book adaptation of his original teleplay for IDW. Issues #1 and 2 are now available, and we can finally see what all the fuss was about.
Firstly, the artwork by J.K. Woodward is magnificent. Evoking Drew Struzan at his best, these carefully painted renderings are clearly based on stills and film from the original series, but artfully placed in another context. So, we almost get to see Shatner, Nimoy and especially Grace Lee Whitney as Rand give the performances that were in mind at the time. And the style is perfectly suited to the majestic and mysterious crystal-like city in which the crew meets the “guardians of forever”.
The essential story, in its broad strokes, seems to be the same as we all know. The Enterprise encounters temporal turbulence, and studies a distant planet that seems to be the source. One crewmember (McCoy in the filmed version, Beckwith in this version), out of his mind on drugs, goes down to the planet, travels back in time to the 1930s and changes history because, in the Guardians’ words from issue #2, “He will seek that which must die, and give it life.” Kirk and Spock have to go back to the 1930s, stop Beckwith from doing whatever it is he does (preventing the death of Edith Keeler) and restore history.
There are, of course, some important differences in this version. The overall tone of the piece is quite a bit more “adult” than the average Trek episode, although this particular instalment sticks out as a Trek outing very light on cheese and heavy on drama. There’s no joking around in this version, no light witticisms. Kirk is serious, and so is everyone else. Another major difference is that lack of a supporting cast. Other than Kirk, Spock and Rand, no other familiar characters appear. There’s no Sulu, no Scotty, no McCoy and no Uhura. (Chekov, as I’m sure someone out there is already saying, didn’t appear until the second season.) As a result, Rand’s character becomes much more important, not simply eye candy or “Kirk’s girlfriend”, but an essential part of the command team, brandishing a phaser rifle to cut through a door, physically taking on an enemy and leading detachments Kirk leaves to guard the ship. She’s a strong, capable female character, completely unlike anything seen in Trek at the time and frankly not seen even in JJ Abrams’ action movies that bear the same title.
The planet itself is much more elaborate in this version, with huge vistas and landscapes that, as previously mentioned, would have been difficult to impossible to produce for TV in the 1960s, even with a high budget and plenty of shooting time. Kirk, Spock, Rand and a few Red Shirts traverse a reddish desert before reaching the crystal canyons, where several old men’s images in the crystal walls identify themselves as “The Guardians of Forever”. (And Kirk, significantly, refers to the glimmering city set in these mountains as “A city on the edge of forever,” a name that only makes sense in this context.)
The Guardians speak some of the same lines we are familiar with from the TV version, featuring only a single set but an effective abstract shape playing the Guardian, a choice that seems equally effective, but quite different. For example, in this version, Kirk asks, “You live in that city?” referring to the city in the mountains, and the response is, “Since before your sun burned hot in space and before your race was born.” Compare this to the TV version, in which Kirk simply asks, “What is it?” and the donut-shaped Guardian responds, “A question! Since before your sun burned hot in space and before your race was born, I have awaited a question!” It’s a subtle change, but an important one. For one thing, later dialogue establishes that the Guardians haven’t had contact with another species in 200 000 years, and haven’t traveled through time for 100 000 years. Both figures are an absolute eternity for our species, and certainly before modern civilization, but not before the birth of our species and certainly not the 5-6 Billion years before our “sun burned hot in space”. Ellison’s version is actually more scientifically plausible, more poetic and more intelligent, relying less on exaggerated statements and hyperbole and more on a reasonable conversation between two intelligent people. This small difference is illustrative of the changes that were made for the TV edit to dialogue that betray a lack of understanding of “hard” sci fi.
Issue #1 features the crew meeting the Guardians, and ends with Beckwith jumping into the time portal. Issue #2 is about the consequences of that. In the TV version, the Guardian simply tells Kirk and company what happened. Here, we’re shown, with the landing party beaming back to what is now the Condor, under the command of ragtag mercenaries due to Beckwith’s changing of history. They fight with the goons (Rand included, throwing punches with the best of them) and Kirk and Spock beam back down, leaving Rand leading a team to guard the transporter room. Kirk speaks with the Guardians and there is a long exploration of the notion of time as a “river”, which Spock only brings up tangentially and after the fact in the TV version. Issue #2 ends with Kirk and Spock jumping back into the 1930s, where instead of having a funny conversation with an Irish cop about Spock being Chinese and having his head caught in a mechanical rice picker, a crowd instantly singles him out as a Chinese foreigner “taking American jobs” and they are chased by an angry crowd, taking refuge in a basement.
This last change from the TV version shows what I suspect to be a motif of the editing here: cynicism vs optimism. Roddenberry imagined a world without drug abuse (ergo having McCoy accidentally inject himself rather than a drug addict do so on purpose). He also imagined and wanted to present a world without racism, and this apparently stretched into revising the past, as he wasn’t about to show real intolerance, realistically. This, I think, is understandable to a public in 1967 or 1968 who got violence and racial tension (not to mention the Vietnam war) on the news every night. Roddenberry wanted to show them something better, not remind them of what really was. But Ellison belongs to a different class of writer, who uses the truth poetically and isn’t about to shy away from controversy. Ellison may indeed be the bolder, more creative and more talent artist, but that doesn’t make Roddenberry any less correct in making the changes he made.
To put it another way, and to paraphrase, in reference to Harlan himself: “He was right. But at the wrong time.”
I’ll be back with more reviews of this limited series as it continues.